Radical media, politics and culture.

Peter Waterman, "From Decent Work to the Liberation of Life from Work"

Peter Waterman writes:

"From ‘Decent Work’ to ‘The Liberation of Time from Work’:
Reflections on Work, Emancipation, Utopia and the Global Justice and Solidarity Movement"
Peter Waterman, Global Solidarity Dialogue Group

1. Introduction

"Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number —
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many — they are few." — P. B. Shelley, "The Mask of Anarchy," 1819.

"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias." — Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1891.

"The Future Is Not What It Used To Be." — Cited Sousa Santos 1995:479.

I want to here comment on a number of historical and contemporary understandings of work and workers, represented in the quotations below. I want to comment more particularly on the utopian ones. Utopian ideas have always been central to or lain beneath emancipatory movements, particular labour and socialist ones in their emancipatory moments (Beilharz 1992). I want, even more specifically, to comment on this problematic in relation to the World Social Forum (WSF), or to the Global Justice and Solidarity Movement (GJ&SM) in general. Because, at least with the Forum, we are confronted with the problem of an event largely dominated by a position on work that is quite literally pro-capitalist, whilst so far providing little hearing for any specific utopian (post-capitalist) position on such.

Given the limits of my own reading or understanding, I would like to see this paper as some kind of Wiki document (an internet invention, documents repeatedly edited or added to, thus being a contribution to collective thinking rather than claiming some unique individuality). The paper is actually already some kind of personal Wiki, given its origin in an incomplete one of similar title, presented within the ‘Life after Capitalism’ programme, organised by the US-based Znet at the World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2003, http://www.zmag.org/watermanwork.htm. If any reader knows how to truly convert it into a real (i.e. virtual) Wiki, they should go ahead and do so, preferably informing me either before or after doing so.

2. The golden future of communism (But who’s looking after baby? And collecting trash?)

'In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.'

(Karl Marx and Frederick Engels 1970/1845-6)

Marxism, says my old friend, Bertell Ollman (2003:82), ‘is an unusual, perhaps unique, combination of…science, critique, vision and recipe for revolution. What we have above is the vision, an attractive invocation of work beyond capitalism and its multiple divisions of labour. And for Marx, certainly, there would have been precisely such a combination between this vision, his sociology of labour, his critique of capitalist labour, his recipe for revolution.

However, the breadth and fecundity of his thought, and the leaps of his imagination, mean not only that there are gaps and contradictions between (and within) each part of the combination, and that he is open to multiple interpretation by even quite orthodox Marxists, but that the vision can become divorced from the rest. (Hyman 2005, I think, both recognises and exemplifies this).

Marx, moreover, was writing within an early-industrial capitalist society, marked by living experience of the rural past, and present, and by a spontaneous machismo. Huntin’, Shootin’ and Fishin’? The only urban/urbane addition is that of criticising – also in Marx’s day an occupation reserved to males of the wealthier classes. Naïve as the vision might be, it remains, like so much of Marx, spiritually inspiring, intellectually provocative and wilfully hopeful.

Moreover, as we will see below, utopian vision, once widespread in the labour and socialist movement, seems, after a long absence, to be returning to the agenda of emancipatory movements.

3. A utopian strategy for worker power: forming the new society within the shell of the old

'Instead of the conservative motto, 'A fair day's wage for a fair day's work,' we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, 'Abolition of the wage system.' It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organised, not only for everyday struggle with the capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organising industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.'

(Preamble to the Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World,
USA, 1905)

Here is a classical re-statement, 50 years later, of a Marxist view of social emancipation. The IWW, or Wobblies, were the major anarcho-syndicalist movement of the time. Founded in the USA, the IWW also became a major international/ist movement, with significant following in the English-speaking world but also in, for example, Argentina. ‘Anarcho-syndicalism’ is an English term that combines anarchism (as an anti-capitalist and anti-statist doctrine) with syndicalism (the early European trade-union belief that socialism would be based on some kind of federation of self-managing productive communities).

The Wobblies, and anarcho-syndicalism more generally, had their main bases in craft production, amongst the recently proletarianised, and in industries in which worker control of production was easily imaginable.

The Wobblies and the anarcho-syndicalist tradition within the labour movement were wiped out by large-scale, complex, capitalist and state enterprise, with extensive division of labour, and crushed between the two major statist socialist traditions, that of Social Democracy and Communism. As workers became socialised into wage-labour, the slogan, ‘Abolition of the wage system!’ fell into disuse, seen either as archaic or utopian (increasingly a pejorative) or both.

Today, however, as work for capitalism (too much, too meaningless, too unhealthy, too little, the wrong kind, environmentally destructive, unnecessary) comes again into question, the slogan may take on new life. Today, the notion of a society or polity based solely on production communities has little appeal. But the idea of building a ‘new society within the shell of the old’ is spreading both within production/consumption/exchange and more widely. Thus we find increasing experiments and writing on the ‘solidarity economy’, much of this being discussed within the World Social Forums. And the notion of ‘prefigurative politics’ – of learning and demonstrating now the nature of the projected utopia – has spread from the feminism of the 1970s to the Global Justice and Solidarity Movement more generally.

4. The actually-existing industrial proletariat: workers socialised into capitalist work

'[T]he proletariat, the great class embracing all the producers of civilised nation[s], the class which in freeing itself will free humanity from servile toil and will make of the human animal a free being - the proletariat, betraying its instincts, despising its historic mission, has let itself be perverted by the dogma of work. Rude and terrible has been its punishment. All its individual and social woes are born of its passion for work.'

(Paul Lafargue, France, 1907/1893)

Lafargue was Marx’s son-in-law. His tract on The Right to be Lazy was a powerful attack on what is today known as the work-ethic. It must have shocked his contemporaries. And it was certainly rejected or repressed by the Social-Democratic and Communist movements, married in different ways to the work-ethic and the model working-class revolutionary (or voter). The libertarian tradition was later revived in the work of André Gorz (see below).

Lafargue stands clearly in the Marxist tradition when he sees the proletariat as obliged both by nature and by history to free humanity by freeing itself. However, even where workers have managed to reduce hours or to reject the work-ethic, they are today offered commoditised and often privatised leisure as an alternative. Freedom from the work-ethic does not, it appears, necessarily lead to socially-emancipatory action. This would seem to require not simply the experience and understanding of alienated labour but the experience and understanding of society and the world as alienated, depriving human-beings of their past powers and future capabilities.

5. The ILO’s vision of ‘decent work’: The future lies behind us!

'Decent work is about your job and future prospects, about your working conditions; about balancing work and family life, putting your kids through school or getting them out of child labour. It is about gender equality, equal recognition, and enabling women to make choices and take control of their lives.
It is about your personal abilities to compete in the market place, keep up with new technological skills and remain healthy. It is about developing your entrepreneurial skills, about receiving a fair share of the wealth that you have helped to create and not being discriminated against; it is about having a voice in your workplace and your community.

In the most extreme situations, it is about moving from subsistence to existence. For many, it is the primary route out of poverty. For many more, it is about realising personal aspirations in their daily existence and about solidarity with others. And everywhere, and for everybody, decent work is about securing human dignity.
Decent work is a development strategy. It is a goal not a standard. It does not offer a "one size fits all" solution. It is a personal goal for individuals and families and a development goal for countries.'

(Juan Somavia, Director, ILO, as summarised in The Jobs Letter, 2001)

‘Decent work’ is a well-funded programme of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a liberal-democratic body that has been marginalised by the paleo-liberal international financial institutions (IFIs) in the process of capitalist globalisation. The ILO is trying, both energetically and pathetically, to re-establish the significance it had during the passing epoch of National-Industrial Capitalism. In this effort, it is seeking to appeal to the more liberal-democratic capitalists and states, to the broadly social-reformist unions…and to the radically-democratic World Social Forum! Following up on a first presentation, in 2002, the ILO and its union partners is trying to involve also ‘other social organisations’ in this project (ICFTU, WCL, ETUC 2003).

The message being broadcast (or received) attempts to simultaneously adjust itself to capitalist globalisation (and language) and to propose a global neo-Keynesian inflection of such.
‘Decent Work’ has been enthusiastically adopted by the inter/national union organisations that are in a posture of subordinate partnership (i.e. political or ideological dependence on) capital and/or state. It is the latest fig-leaf behind which the inter/national unions are hiding their bankruptcy in the face of neo-liberal globalisation. What 'decent work' looks like, in a brochure of the World Confederation of Labour that I found at WSF 2002, is the kind of job that workers in industrialised capitalist countries had – or were convinced by society that they had – before neo-liberal globalisation. 'Decent work' has apparently to do with 'rights' and 'dignity' and being 'free from exploitation'. It allows a worker to be an actor in an economy 'at the service of mankind' ('mankind' evidently here embraces womankind). This, it seems to me, is a Social-Christian doctrine that takes us back less to the 20th than to the late-19th century and the Papal Encyclical on human labour. (Waterman 2002).
‘Decent Work’ is a Big Issue at World Social Forums. This does not mean it should be simply ignored, dismissed or condemned (as I may appear to have done). ‘Decent Work’ could have considerable appeal not only to an inter/national labour movement lacking an ideology or strategy of its own. It could, if widely promoted, have considerable appeal to those in work degraded by globalisation, to the overworked, the casually-employed, the subcontractee and to the unemployed.

Whether, of course, the inter/national unions have any intention of turning this into a worldwide international solidarity protest, on the model of the Eight-Hour Day movement of the late-19th century, is another matter. ‘Decent Work’ may function for most inter/national union officers as yet another gambit within the game of international union diplomacy, with no more likely success than that of the 15-year-long and now-abandoned strategy of winning international labour rights through the WTO!

What workers and unions identified with the GJ&SM could, however, do is to confront ‘Decent Work’ with, at the very least, notions of ‘Useful Work’, ‘Ecologically-Friendly Production’, and with the argument that available work be evenly spread amongst available workers. An international campaign for ‘Decent, Useful, Ecologically-Friendly Work, for Women and Men Worldwide’ could move a social-reformist strategy in a radically-democratic direction. I will return to this matter later.

6. The end of labour’s utopias, or the recovery of one?

'[W]hat was utopian in the early 19th century has ceased in part to be so today: the economy and the social process of production require decreasing quantities of wage labour. The subordination of all other human activities and goals to waged work, for economic ends, is ceasing to be either necessary or meaningful. Emancipation from economic and commercial rationality is becoming a possibility, but it can only become reality through actions which also demonstrate its feasibility. Cultural action and the development of ‘alternative activities’ take on a particular significance in this context[…]
I have attempted to identify the meaning history could have, and to show what humanity and the trade union movement could derive from the technological revolution…Events could nevertheless take a course which would miss the possible meaning of the current technological revolution. If this happens, I can see no other meaning in that revolution: our societies will continue to disintegrate, to become segmented, to sink into violence, injustice and fear.

(André Gorz, 1999)

Liberation from work is the strategy of André Gorz. Gorz has produced a challenging critique of the ideology of work that dominates the international trade-union movement as much as it does the capitalist (or statist) media. This ideology holds that 1) the more each works, the better off all will be; 2) that those who do little or no work are acting against the interests of the community; 3) that those who work hard achieve success and those who don't have only themselves to blame. He points out that today the connection between more and better has been broken and that the problem now is one of producing differently, producing other things, working less. Gorz distinguishes between work for economic ends (the definition of work under capitalism/statism), domestic labour, work for ‘oneself’ (primarily the additional task of women – for whom ‘self’ customarily means ‘the family’), and autonomous activity (artistic, relational, educational, mutual-aid, etc). He argues, I think, for a movement from the first type to the third, and for the second one to be increasingly articulated with the third rather than subordinated to the first.

Gorz points out that, with the new technologies, it is possible, in the industrialised capitalist countries, to reduce average working hours from 1,600 to 1,000 a year without a fall in living standards. Under capitalist conditions, of course, what is clearly more likely to happen is a division of the active population into 25 percent of skilled, permanent and unionised workers, 25 percent insecure and unskilled peripheral workers, and 50 percent semi-employed, unemployed or marginalised workers, doing occasional or seasonal work. This is the dystopia that has been taking shape since Gorz first predicted it in 1988. If the trade unions are not to be reduced to some kind of neo-corporatist mutual-protection agency for the skilled and privileged, they will, Gorz argues, have to struggle for liberation from work:

'Such a project is able to give cohesion and a unifying perspective to the different elements that make up the social movement since 1) it is a logical extension of the experience and struggles of workers in the past; 2) it reaches beyond that experience and those struggles towards objectives which correspond to the interests of both workers and non-workers, and is thus able to cement bonds of solidarity and common political will between them; 3) it corresponds to the aspirations of the ever-growing proportion of men and women who wish to (re)gain control in and of their own lives.' (Gorz 1999:45)

This argument reveals no particular awareness of the existence of a world of labour outside Western Europe (compare Barchiesi 2004). But, in case it should be thought that struggle against wage labour is the privilege only of ‘labour aristocrats’ in industrialised capitalist welfare states, it should be pointed out that it was with the struggle for the Eight-Hour Working Day that the international trade-union movement was born in the 1890s, and that similar national or international strategies have been long proposed within Latin America (Sulmont 1988) and the USA (Brecher and Costello 1994). The importance of the Gorz argument lies precisely in its rooting within international labour movement history and contemporary union concerns, and the explicit connections made with the alternative social movements - or, if you like, with those interests and identities of workers that unions currently ignore, subordinate or repress.

What Gorz, in other words, seems to offer us is a labour discourse and strategy for the global justice movement.

7. Information workers and a utopian form of worker self-articulation: problems and possibilities

'As in other industries, workers in the emerging digital economy also need to defend their common interests. However, most of the existing labour organisations are not responding quickly enough to the changes in people’s working lives. Although formed to fight the employers, industrial trade unions were also created in the image of the Fordist factory: bureaucratic, centralised and nationalist. For those working within the digital economy, such labour organisations seem anachronistic. Instead, new forms of unionism need to be developed which can represent the interests of digital workers. As well as reforming the structures of existing labour organisations, digital workers should start co-operating with each other using their own methods. As they’re already on-line, people could organise to advance their common interests through the Net. Formed within the digital economy, a virtual trade union should emphasise new principles of labour organisation: artisanal, networked and global.'

(Richard Barbrook 1999)

'We must conclude that although there is considerable potential for the emergence of a common class consciousness amongst information-processing workers, based in a common labour process, common employers and a common relation to capital, powerful counter-forces are present which seem likely to inhibit this development, the greatest of which, perhaps, is racism…There is considerable evidence of successful organizing by the new “e-workers” within countries […] However, examples of such organization across national boundaries are few and far between…In general…the evidence of resistance by these workers comes in more sporadic and anarchic forms, such as the writing of viruses or other forms of sabotage […] It is apparent that a new cybertariat is in the making. Whether it will perceive itself as such is another matter.'

(Ursula Huws 2000:19-20)

Here we would seem to have a division within the Gramscian imperative, ‘Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will’ - if in reverse order.

Barbrook and Huws make specific address to the emerging digital economy. Information workers, in the most general sense, are already a majority of the wage-earning classes in industrialized capitalist countries. And the expansion of that part of the working class that is wholly or partly dependent on computer use, or involved in developing the industry itself, is also growing.

Richard Barbrook looks at the matter from the point of view of organisation. Or perhaps we should here say (bearing in mind he is talking of networking) the point of view of worker collective self-articulation. Ursula Huws seems to recognise that there are different working classes, that the ‘cybertariat’ is a significant part of such, but seems to doubt whether it can even develop a corporate (category-specific) self-consciousness.

Two conclusions spring to mind. One is that the new category identified by Huws is unlikely (given its internal divisions) to spontaneously develop a new consciousness: such needs to be proposed, discussed, argued for and demonstrated by activists. The second is that the Barbrook’s new union model, based on the new industry and the new worker, is actually one relevant to wage-workers and working people more generally.

Increasing numbers of such working people, including the most ‘a-typical’ are already involved in ‘organisations’ that are ‘artisanal, networked and global’. Consider only the international network of fishing workers and communities (Waterman 2004a), which has been present at various WSFs.

And arguments promoting the ‘virtual union of the future’ (Hyman 1999:111-12) are increasingly appearing in the literature of labour studies. Is this utopian? I would say yes because utopia has to be understood in process terms as well as those of time or place. And because the implications of a form of worker articulation that is artisanal, networked and global are that it can be de-professionalised, that it can be horizontalised, opened up and open-ended, incorporate feedback, and that it can be global (both international and holistic).

8. The proletariat is dead! Long live the precariat?

'PRECARIOUSNESS is what we live, FLEXICURITY is what we want. Across
Euroland. And fast. We demand security and universality of income,
social and vacation benefits, increased overtime[pay? PW] and limitations on
night and [S]unday work, subsidised education, housing, health, free
access to media and knowledge, a eurowide minimum wage, right to
union-organising for temps and flextimers, an end of wage and union
discrimination by employers between temp and non-temp labour, such as the
fact that a partimer's hour is paid less than a fulltimer's, an end to
xenophobic laws and mass deportations that are suppressing the free
circulation of people of all hues, religions, and cultures across NEUROPA.[…]
(A]t the core of the process of neoliberal accumulation lies flexible and contingent labour by the young, women, migrants and casualised employees, in crucial reproductive and
distribution services, and in the knowledge, culture, and media
industries that provide the raw material on which the system functions:
information… We are the producers of neoliberal wealth, we are
the creators of knowledge, style and culture enclosured and appropriated
by monopoly power.'

(Euro Mayday 2004)

'It was, however, another, deeper process…that drew the most attention during this ESF [European Social Forum 2004. PW]. […W]hat we saw this year was a rise of the ‘precariat': precisely the new ‘class' created by the regime of flexible accumulation, the ‘flexible', ‘flexploited' workers of the world. With no fixed job, no access to welfare, the precariat is the anomalous contradiction within the historical trend of capitalism towards the decrease of the labour journey: they work more for less. More than that, the concept makes possible a transversal analysis of contemporary society, in the sense that the precarious condition is extended to issues like housing and legal status, thus incorporating struggles such as those of the sans papiers and migrants, which were also very visible in the autonomous spaces [of the ESF. PW].'

(Rodrigo Nunes 2002)

Here we have an extension of the ideas sketched in the previous propositions. The two above are both more detailed and broader – in the sense of addressing themselves quite explicitly to social categories and problems beyond labour. These are the young, the female, the ethnic and religious minorities and the immigrant, all disproportionately represented within the category. The invention of new concepts – the ‘precariat’, ‘flexploitation’, ‘flexicurity’, ‘Neuropa’ – is a condition for social transformation insofar as they oblige us to re-think both old practices and old modes of thinking. Furthermore, intimate connections are here suggested between this new working class and the old one, between old strategies and new. Finally, we seem to here have the identification of a new social subject and strategy umbilically connected with the GJ&SM in general, the WSF in particular!

The necessary caveats to this kind of vision are expressed by those who are also engaged with it – another increasingly common feature of the new movements. Thus Nunes himself suggests, in the document from which the quote comes, that the new movement has not yet confronted the difference (or distance) between the precariat of material and immaterial labour, meaning, I suppose, between hamburger flippers and software designers. He also asks how this European initiative might relate to labour internationally. It occurs to me, further, that whilst the precariat is a possibly growing percentage of the workforce in Neuropa, it represents over 90 percent of the labour force in India, and that this kind of differential is longstanding. There is, finally, the question of whether, in naming, giving identity, interests, and appealing to, this new social subject, one is not also giving it the imaginary properties earlier assigned to the industrial proletariat by socialists. In other words, of suggesting that it is either the bearer, or a privileged bearer, of human progress, emancipation and solidarity. (Compare Mitropolous 2005, who raises more general issues concerning labour for capital and movements beyond such).

9. The multitude: all who work for, and potentially refuse, the rule of capital


'[Our] initial approach is to conceive the multitude as all those who work under the rule of capital and thus potentially as the class of those who refuse the rule of capital […] In contrast to the exclusions that characterise the concept of the working class, then, the multitude is an open and expansive concept.[…] Whether or not this was the case in the past, the concept of multitude rests on the fact that it is not true today…[T]here is no political priority among the forms of labour: all forms of labour are today socially productive, they produce in common, and share too a common potential to resist the domination of capital. Think of it as the equal opportunity of resistance…[T]he conditions exist for the various types of labour to communicate, collaborate, and become common[…] In the final decades of the 20th century, industrial labour lost its hegemony and in its stead emerged ‘immaterial labour’, that is, labour that creates immaterial products, such as knowledge, information, communication, a relationship, or an emotional response. […] Producing communication, affective relationships, and knowledges, in contrast to cars and typewriters, can directly expand the realm of what we share in common.'

(Hardt and Negri 2004: 106-14)

This is a series of admittedly telegraphic extracts from one section of an innovatory work by the most-controversial writers of the latest left. Theirs is a pioneering attempt to re-invent the Marxist concept of the working class in the light of informatisation. (And, indeed, in the light of globalisation, in so far as they elsewhere deal with the world of the Southern peasant). The language may be exotic but, possibly, justified by the necessity of new concepts to express the new situation and the new possibilities. The re-invention is not simply a matter of adapting or updating Marxism since Hardt and Negri are concerned to distance themselves from the traditional tendency to read off emancipatory potential from structural position. Their ‘multitude’ is not either naturally or structurally an increasingly homogeneous emancipatory force. They are, rather, appealing to a diverse and unlimited constituency of those working for capital to nonetheless recognise a commonality and act together against capitalism in the light of such. In this aspiration or effort they are, of course, assisted by the secular movement globally from ‘material’ to ‘immaterial’ production, by the fact that what is increasingly being produced is ‘social life itself’.

Whereas, previously, I have considered the concept ‘multitude’ as just one more of a problematic set, including the ‘people’, the ‘masses’, the ‘proletariat’ or the ‘working class’, I now see it as a further productive step in the effort to conceptualise a power (a potential) for the creation of an emancipatory force that is also a majority. The ‘material’ basis for the identification of and an address to such a collective subject is, precisely, the movement from industrial to ‘immaterial labour’ (as that which models work in the era of a globalised networked capitalism). ‘Immaterial labour’ in this argument, does not have to be the majority form, in order to model both work for capital and resistance to such - any more than did industrial labour in the previous epoch. That mode never covered the majority of the world’s working classes, but it did provide the model for agricultural production, and for the typical forms of resistance for even agricultural labour – the union, the ‘party of the working class’, etc.

‘Producing communication, affective relationships, and knowledges…can directly expand the realm of what we share in common’. I recognise this in relation contemporary forms of labour internationalism. That is, I have argued that what we need is a new model of communication for a new kind of labour internationalism (Waterman 1988). I was here, however, working backwards from observation of the extent to which the new labour internationalism was a communications one. Hardt and Negri are arguing this in terms of the shift from material to immaterial production. And it is not too difficult to recognise the extent to which ‘a-typical’ labour internationally is articulating itself (i.e. both joining and expressing itself) not on the model of the national-industrial-capitalist union organisation but on that of the global-labour-solidarity network (Waterman 2004a, b).

One doubt or qualification is here in place. There remains in the quotation from Hardt and Negri the ghost of homo fabiens (the human as producer). And of an admittedly reconceptualised and infinitely extended working class as the agent of global social emancipation. This is to re-state or re-instate the subordination of all other social contradictions and social movements (ecological, anti-racist, feminist, pacifist) to that of their new multitude. We surely need, moreover, to see the human as a species-being (the human as a part of or in relation to nature) homo sapiens (the human as thinker) and, of course, as homo ludens (the human as player). I am not sure whether the concept of ‘multitude’ can be extended to cover the struggle for more time to play (games, sports, dance, sing). And whilst it might be possible to extend the word labour to child-bearing and child-rearing – as work reproducing the next generation of workers, I cannot see how this could be extended to sexual relations and identities which even under capitalism are increasingly freed from their original and contemporary-capitalist reproductive function. Which brings us to the next set of reflections.

10. Wo/men and work today and tomorrow

'[In studies of women and labour there is a need to] move away from focussing primarily on class and gender to the more fruitful concept of multiple identities, located in the context of the family, community, workplace and the state. A number of aspects of identity, including ethnicity, class, caste, marital status and level of education are relevant as areas of cohesion and for cleavage among women workers: gender does not create an automatic basis for affinity, although gender can be operationalised within particular contexts and is a possible basis for solidarity. They are selectively mobilised [by women workers] in response to economic, political and social pressures […] The interaction of identity, consciousness and process, the interplay of multiple identities and multiple strategies, and the effects of this in relation to possible organisational forms and alliances, are interrelated areas which must be brought to bear in analysis and strategic planning...There is a clear continuum between the many areas and arenas of women’s lives (such as waged labour and domestic labour; obligations as wife, mother and income earner) which are often segregated in patriarchal ideology…Through the use of coalescing strategies, the continuum is recognised and efforts can be made not only to respond to these linked responsibilities, but also to compensate them through economic valuation and action.'

(Chhachhi and Pittin 1996:10-11)

'Nearly everyone is required to participate in farming and cleaning; the chores of transportation, public welfare, defence and other necessities are also shared among all members of the community. Citizens receive the option of pursuing higher education, yet careers are distributed on a rotating basis and nearly everyone is involved in public service. Art is produced communally. People may choose to identify with any ethnic or religious group regardless of their genetic backgrounds, but everyone is expected to pray and celebrate together, regardless of affiliation. And gender, the most intractable difference among human beings, has been eliminated. Children are conceived in laboratories through random selection of genetic attributes and raised to viability in artificial wombs. As members of communities die, groups of three "co-mothers" (who may be male or female) are selected to parent. Hormones stimulate milk production in parents who want to breastfeed, men as well as women. Every child is a wanted child, and all infants and toddlers are housed together in large nurseries. Members of both sexes receive maternity leave just as members of both sexes engage in all forms of physical labour…Mattapoisett…has had to make sacrifices to achieve peace and prosperity; among the sacrifices have been synthetic food, animal products, mass entertainment and non-recyclable materials. The political and social commitments of these futuristic socialists and environmentalists come into sharp contrast with American capitalism, with its roots in human and environmental exploitation.

(Review of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, 1977,
Irene Green (no details)

Move over, Karl, here come the feminists!

Firstly, we have two women moving beyond class (and gender) determinism in recognising the multiply-determined identities of women workers and working women. The implication of this for the organising and mobilisation of women workers is, therefore, not apparently one of prioritising either the class or gender identify of the women concerned but of creating multifaceted campaigns that draw on a wide spectrum of working women’s interests and identities. What is not clear from this passage is how one would or could distinguish between the identities that lead to cleavage and those that lead to solidarity. There would seem here to be a principle missing, one that would help observers and activists to distinguish, for example, between kinds of religious, family or ethnic identity which could lead to solidarity amongst working women – not only locally but globally - and those which would not. Class and gender identity have, separately and in combination, widely-spread agreement on the nature of the problem and (less widely-spread agreement) on the solution. Perhaps there needs to be added to the argument of coalescing strategies for working women some universalisable notions of alienation, democratisation and emancipation?

On the other hand, there comes out of this analysis of ‘women organising in the process of industrialisation’ two interesting recognitions. The first is that it is not restricted to women in this specified situation or moment. The second is that it is not restricted to working women.

Secondly, we have novelist Marge Piercy (paraphrased, in a lost source), restating Marx’s somewhat aristocratic, rural and gender-blind formulation for our own times and in more plebeian terms. That she was discussing the emancipatory potential of genetic engineering at a time in which the Best of the Left was just learning how to email again reveals how literature can surpass old scientific and political paradigms and prejudices. Utopias have customarily taken literary form. They represent, after all, appeals to the feelings and imagination. It is this that enables us to escape from the iron cage of whichever structures and discourses imprison us. Utopias are offered not simply to please or inspire us, not only as a critique of actually-existing society. They are also there to provoke thought.

Unmentioned in the quote above is that women in this utopia have become strong enough to give up the unique privilege and labour of bearing children. Indeed, the ‘him/her’ distinction has disappeared from use in favour of the universal ‘per’. There is a cost of being so radical. (At the point in the novel at which a genetically-engineered man is breast-feeding a baby, my aged mother, identified with earlier-20th century socialism and feminism, abandoned the book in disgust). Another innovation, unmentioned above, is that Piercy’s utopia exists alongside a future dystopia bent on its destruction. As a socialist-feminist-ecological utopia, in which high-tech and high-touch coexist, Piercy’s novel raises questions that the WSF, 30 years later, has not considered, far less confronted.

10. Putting utopia back on the map (now that it is not what it used to be)

'1. Overcoming alienation;
2. Attenuating the division of labour;
3. Transforming consumption;
4. Alternative ways of living [the feminist one - PW];
5. Socialising markets;
6. Planning ecologically;
7. Internationalising equality;
8. Communicating democratically;
9. Realising democracy;
10. Omnia sint communia [All in common - PW]'

(Panitch and Leys 2000).

The importance of this specification for me is not only its chutzpah (Yiddish: brass nerve?), in devoting the Old New Left Socialist Register to utopia at a nadir of socialist self-confidence, but the way in which Panitch and Leys have broadened out the utopian agenda, linking traditional labour and ‘economic’ concerns to take account of the newest features of social life, of subjective identity and of social movements. It suggests a project that the GJ&SM might offer to and discuss with the traditional unions and the unionised working class. What it maybe misses is an 11th Thesis, on the surpassal of warfare and militarism. But what I to discuss here is the tenth proposition: ‘All in Common’ (Waterman 2002), particularly as it applies to the global.

The principle of the commons is subversive of those underlying 1) the modern nation-state (actually the state-defined nation) and 2) capitalism. (For an extension of this argument to the information age, see Berry 2004).

The state-nation depends on the principle of sovereignty, which implies state hegemony within geographical borders and inter-state relations beyond these. It defines the human-being as a national, either as lowest common denominator or as highest common factor. Being a citizen of a state-nation, however, is clearly quite different from being an equal' owner of it, or otherwise equally benefiting from, controlling it or contributing to it. Here the state-nation substitutes for the citizen, who is distanced from the national commons by sets of complex procedures and a hierarchy of intermediaries, supposed to represent the citizen. Moreover, the state-nation is the mediator of dominant international relations in a ‘world of nation states’, including those of ownership, control or influence over the ‘supra-state’ commons (air, water, cyberspace).

Underlying capitalism is the principle of competition and private property (privatised consumption, privatised services) which, as extended to the human-being, sees him/her as both individualised and property-owning - the ‘political theory of possessive individualism’. In its extreme contemporary forms, it turns even the national citizen into a cosmopolitan consumer, and even brands this consumer with a corporate logo. So extreme - so world-embracing and world-consuming - have become the old contradictions between production and consumption, the worker as producer and the worker as consumer, producing regions and consuming regions, that the movements around labour and against consumerism – and even the arena of fashion/aesthetics – can converge (Ross 1999). Various international solidarity movements in the West are now producing their own anti-sweat (non-capitalist? post-capitalist?) sports clothes.

For the labour movement, recognition of struggles over the commons would 1) revive a popular historical tradition (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000), 2) strengthen the unions’ anti-privatisation movement (Whitfield 2001), and 3) add a subversive/creative ethical edge to what could otherwise be dismissed as a corporate self-interest.

A plea for the international labour movement to join its voice to both the discourse and the struggles concerning the UN’s ‘common heritage of humankind’, is intended again to broaden the horizons and the appeal of the labour movement, and to give the Common Heritage an articulation with class/popular/democratic interests and identities globally it would otherwise lack.

11. Conclusion: Relating ‘Decent Work’ to ‘Liberating Life from Work’ in a utopian manner

Here I want to return to my starting point, or at least my title. I want to do so not so much by attempting to summarise the reflections as a whole as by suggesting how the two orientations to work might be brought into relation with one another to emancipatory effect. This should at least suggest a model for reinventing the labour movement in the light of both capitalist globalisation and the movement to surpass such.

It would, I think, be a major error to see the relationship between a subaltern and an emancipatory orientation to work in terms of a binary opposition, such as that between Reform and Revolution in traditional socialist terms. This is for several reasons.

In the first place, binary oppositional thinking is obviously mechanical rather than dialectical, suggesting discrete entities or options, the one excluding the other, victory implying the domination or suppression of the other. The increasing interpenetration and mutual dependency of natural, human, social and scientific fact and thought in a globalised and informatised universe, condemns us to think dialectically (in terms, for example, of the mutual dependency of the opposed terms, of contradictions within each of them). The mutual dependency or determination of incrementalism and insurrectionism within the historical labour movement, and their mutual decline into irrelevance (Wallerstein 2002) provides a terrible warning against such thinking to us ‘newtopians’.

In the second place, let me again suggest that utopia, or utopianism, refers to both a future time/place and to a contemporary process. Which is, I suppose, why Frigga Haug (2002) refers to a complex and contradictory feminist movement as ‘utopian’. Both of the major orientations to work discussed above are being currently presented within the World Social Forum. They are, moreover, being presented alongside other traditionally trade unionist and emancipatory labour/economic proposals (here particularly those of ‘solidarity economics’).

In the third place, the emancipatory tendency in the international labour movement has to see itself as having one foot within the old labour and one in the new global justice movement. These are anyway overlapping categories. But the new movement in general, and the WSF in particular, still do not give to work and the labour movement the kind of recognition that they are – finally – beginning to give to women and feminism. Those in favour of the emancipation of labour, as part of the new social emancipation, are therefore in a relationship of hopefully creative tension with not only the old but the new. Here’s a utopian slogan, to be addressed to both - as well, of course, to labour’s present anti-social partners:

Another World, and Understanding, of Work
is Possible, Necessary and Urgent!